Counting on cannabis

Medical marijuana crusader Cheryl Shuman gets high on Israel.

courtesy: Tikkun Olam 521 (photo credit: Cheryl Shuman)
courtesy: Tikkun Olam 521
(photo credit: Cheryl Shuman)
It’s not clear what to make of an encounter with Cheryl Shuman. Stately in stature, immaculately dressed and erudite, the Hollywood socialite sits in a modest Jerusalem coffee bar and speaks with a conviction that only self-help gurus, born-again preachers and Herbalife salesmen seem to be able to muster these days.
She possesses traits found in all of them, this perky, middle-aged cancer survivor who has seen the light and discovered the purpose of her life – she’s the self-described “Martha Stewart of marijuana.” Like a pot evangelist on a mission, the founder of the Beverly Hills Cannabis Club and the Green Asset International Inc. hedge fund dramatically credits cannabis with bringing her back from the brink of death with advanced ovarian cancer, and is intent on spreading the marvels of medical marijuana to the rest of the world.
“In the 1990s, you had the boom in Silicon Valley. Well, the same thing is about to happen in the cannabis industry around the world – call it the boom,” laughs Shuman, taking a sip from a cold drink after spending the morning at Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem’s Ein Kerem, home to medical marijuana pioneer Dr. Raphael Mechoulam. Only she’s being dead serious, explaining that according to estimates of US business experts, cannabis will be the foundation of a $47 billion industry by 2016.
Shuman has come to Israel to learn about the highly developed medical marijuana industry in Israel, where over 11,000 patients are licensed to use cannabis to ease symptoms of everything from nausea caused by chemotherapy to the lasting effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. She also hopes to create synergy with Israeli experts in the field and recruit them in her efforts to make quality medical marijuana care available to all patients who need it. It may be a quirk of fate, or according to Shuman something more cosmic, that the organization hosting her stay in Israel is called Tikun Olam.
She and the country’s oldest and largest marijuana-growing dispensary have something in common – they’ve dedicated their energy to repairing the world – one bud of high-grade cannabis at a time.
“Do I look stoned? That’s usually the first question I’m asked, ‘Are you stoned?’” asks Shuman.
The answer to her question is emphatically no; she looks as straight as Finance Minister Yair Lapid. However, if you gave your average recreational pot user something resembling Shuman’s daily dosage of cannabis – which she ingests for various ailments including a tumor on her liver, chronic back pain and a heart condition – it’s likely there would be a bag of Doritos sour cream and onion chips and a Three Stooges greatest hits DVD involved. Instead, this cannabis user lucidly recounts her riveting and winding tale that brought her from the Hollywood heights in the 1980s as an eyeglass accessory designer to the stars (including Michael Jackson), to terminal cancer patient, to budding financial tycoon and prolific celebrity spokesperson for medical marijuana and its benefits.
“When I got sick in 2006, I took a serious look at my life. I thought, okay, I’m probably going to die soon, according to what my doctors are telling me. And what has my life really stood for, and what am I leaving behind besides my two great kids?” said the Jewish Shuman, who was once married to Fox News reporter Phil Shuman.
“So I made an agreement with God, which sounds silly – that if I got through this, I would do everything I could to make a difference in the world. I would do something more than make money and go to Hollywood parties – that’s all great, but it’s not really spiritually fulfilling.”
Late in December that year, Shuman’s doctors told her she probably wouldn’t live to see 2007, and she started preparing for the end. She was moved from the hospital to a hospice in Ohio, was receiving 27 pharmaceutical painkillers intravenously and some of her organ functions began to shut down. A friend from high school came to visit and brought some marijuana with her, urging Shuman to try it and telling her that if she was going to die, she might as well go out with a smile on her face.
“I had never smoked growing up, and my view of pot smokers just getting high never appealed to me. I knew something about the health benefits of cannabis but didn’t know much about its true medicinal value,” she says, adding that a decade earlier her psychiatrist had suggested she try it while suffering from anxiety and depression following her divorce. The cannabis worked wonders, but once Shuman was back on her feet, she stopped using it.
She hadn’t even considered it as a treatment to deal with the pain from her cancer and the effects of her treatment, but once she tried it, Shuman underwent a transformation.
“First of all, I started to laugh again. Especially when you’re a terminal patient, you forget what it’s like to laugh,” she says.
Secondly, Shuman began to regain her energy, and against the wishes of her doctors, checked out of the hospice. Within 30 days, she was off her intravenous morphine line and all the other painkillers, and she was able to bathe by herself and wash her hair.
“I spoke to my doctors and endocrinologist, and he didn’t understand what had happened, but my blood levels were doing well. However, as a marijuana user in Ohio, I was facing 10 years in prison if caught, so while they morally supported what I was doing, they couldn’t legally support it. So they suggested I go back to California, where there was a medical marijuana program.”
Shuman began to research medical marijuana online and found some YouTube clips about Tikun Olam,which had just been given a license by the Health Ministry to grow marijuana for medical purposes. It joined a number of other outlets that, since the early 1990s, have been growing cannabis on regulated farms. The ministry medical marijuana program, founded by Dr. Ilan Baruch, was based on the research of Mechoulam, who in the 1960s isolated THC, the active ingredient in cannabis, and conducted research into its medical benefits.
Tikun Olam founder Dora Cohen, a retired biologist, began the operation by cultivating the plant in two rooms of her own home, but with the ministry’s authorization she and her family founded a farm in an undisclosed location in the North that encompasses 11,000 square meters of greenhouses, automatic climate control systems and a meteorological station. The high-grade, pure yield is manufactured into capsules, cookies, extracts, dried leaves or pellets to be vaporized, and then transported under strict safety precautions to patients’ homes or to Tikun Olam’s dispensaries in Tel Aviv and Safed, where the organization provides counseling for patients suffering from an array of ailments including Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.
“We grow 12 different strains of cannabis now, going from low THC and high CBD [cannaboid] where there’s no psychoactive element, which is very good as an anti-inflammatory, to half and half, and high THC strains,” explains Tikun Olam’s head of PR and marketing Ma’ayan Weisberg.
According to Weisberg, the organization provides medical marijuana to over 3,000 of Israel’s users for NIS 370 a month, a price set in 2010 by the Health Ministry in conjunction with the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Heath Committee. Last year, Tikun Olam was granted a first-of-its-kind standards association mark – the ISO 9001 – in the field of growing, production, sale and distribution of medical cannabis and instructing patients.
More significantly, Tikun Olam has accumulated perhaps the most extensive experience in the world in personal counseling of patients on safe and effective use of medical cannabis, based on ongoing programs in nursing facilities for elderly patients and close cooperation with the hospitals around the country.
“Doctors don’t understand enough to give this kind of advice. We have researchers, and work with pain centers in Hadassah University Medical Center, Meir Medical Center, nursing homes and universities around the country,” says Weisberg.
“We’ve been counseling patients for the past six years and have the experience to know what to advise them.”
It was video clips about Tikun Olam’s counseling program featuring human interest stories about some of the patients and therapists that caught Shuman’s eyes and heart back in 2006.
“These were serious people, learned scientists and real patients – I got goosebumps watching the clips,” says Shuman.
“It made me realize that this was real medicine, not voodoo or mystical magic or crazy people making unsubstantiated claims. Within days of watching them, I was learning about strains of THC and CBD and learning how to make tinctures and cannabis ointments. I started my own garden, following the directions of Tikun Olam, and made medicines as best as I could.”
Within a month, Shuman was driving again and working daily in her cannabis garden, and within 90 days, with her cancer in remission, she went back to work – and hasn’t stopped since.
“I believe that with every fiber of my being, cannabis is the reason I’m here today. There’s not a doubt in my mind. I can’t prove it, I don’t know how it works scientifically but I just grew a garden and it worked for me,” she says.
Shuman came away from the experience convinced that cannabis was not being exploited as a medicine to its fullest potential.
She became a tireless advocate for medical marijuana, using passion, gimmicks, celebrity and whatever it takes to blow the smoke away from the stigma of pot.
Shuman is the founder of the Beverly Hills chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and a founding member of the National Cannabis Industry Association. Her medical cannabis high society collective, the exclusive Beverly Hills Cannabis Club, is the subject of a number of reality series pilots (think Desperate Housewives with bongs). The club regularly hosts “tasting parties” where cannabis-based recipes are sampled, like chicken piccata in cannabis-infused olive oil. Shuman has also been ubiquitous on American TV, with interviews on CNN, Fox News, NBC News, Access Hollywood, Entertainment Tonight, the TODAY show, HBO Entertainment News and more.
While some of the media and methods might be low-brow, Shuman’s goal, especially with her hedge fund Green Assets International Inc., with its $100m. in assets, is loftier.
“We’re devoted to developing the cannabis industry – products, medicines, clinics aimed at treating patients and auxiliary businesses,” she says. “After this past election year in the US, cannabis is now legal in 22 states as medicine.
“Two states – Washington and Colorado – have legalized it for recreational use as well, where it’s regulated and taxed like alcohol, and all the other states are following in that path. But one of the most important elements regarding the passage is that it’s now legal to have what is considered cannabis tourism.
We can go in there and open up clinics for people from all over the world.”
Fast forward to what brings Shuman to Israel – it’s her desire, ever since they inspired her own cannabis journey, to meet the people behind Tikun Olam and bring them into her plans.
“I’ve wanted to come and meet these people for a long time, and finally had the opportunity to do it,” says Shuman, who was accompanied on her visit by her daughter, Aimee, who runs several of her mother’s business and PR ventures.
“I was having lunch with an investment banker who’s working with me and he said he’s working with some medical cannabis people, but didn’t tell me who. When I found out, I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been wanting to meet these people forever.’” In addition to meeting with the Cohen family who runs Tikun Olam, Shuman also encountered some of the patients she had watched years ago on those YouTube clips.
“It makes me kind of cry even now, because they were the people that empowered me to heal myself and gave me a second chance at life,” she says. “And now I have opportunities with people that have money and want to invest in this future.”
This is where the sentimental journey turns into dollars and cents, and the point that Shuman, the celebrity pothead cancer survivor, transforms into the crafty start-up entrepreneur.
“In the 1840s, they had the Gold Rush, and we’re going to have the Green Rush,” she sloganizes, rattling off some of the ideas that she expects to be mainstream in America in the coming years. “We’re developing three different types of vaporizers – it’s one of the healthiest intake methods for cannabis, and an estimated $100m. market. And the whole area of clinics and wellness centers – cannabis tourism is why I’m here.”
“There’s an opportunity to put together in Israel what is by far the best business model for medical cannabis and patient care. Tikun Olam is the only dispensary/patient care system model that I’ve seen, and I’ve been in over 1,700 cannabis dispensaries around the world.”
Shuman touts Tikun Olam’s family-oriented, idealist philosophy, saying that they’ve been inspired by something bigger than themselves as they’ve become the Johnny Appleseed of the medical marijuana industry.
“When I learned that the name of their company meant ‘fixing the world,’ I understood everything,” she says. “They seem to be doing this for the right reasons, not for money or fame or getting high. You can tell when people are involved in a mission for reasons other than money – they have this authenticity and passion.”
Shuman herself certainly has the passion, and despite random web chatter calling her a serial self-promoter who never misses a photo op, it’s more likely that her celebrity approach to publicity tends to unintentionally blur the legitimacy of her cannabis crusade. But it’s unlikely the media maven is going to change her stripes, and it’s very likely that, based on her visit, the focus of medical marijuana outreach in the US is going to focus on Israel.
“What I’ve seen in Israel is the first time a business model is working on all cylinders – with the government, growers, counselors and patients all engaged on such a high level,” she says. “This is the perfect role model to take to other countries.
“That’s why I’m here. I’ve got tons of money behind me and investors who believe in what I’m doing. They’re counting on me to bring them the right people to take this industry to the next level, and I’ve found them in Israel.”